David McMillon
David McMillon, PhD Candidate and Math Camp Instructor

Meet David McMillon, PhD Candidate and Math Camp Instructor whose work exploring solutions to the School-to-Prison-Pipeline issue recently won the highly competitive 2020 National Academy of Education (NAEd) Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship. 

Tell me a bit about yourself.

I have always been interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). I went to University of Michigan as an undergraduate math major, because math seems to be at the core of many subjects. It was the best decision I made in college.

In 2011 I went to a retreat with my parents  for the Children’s Defense Fund and learned about mass incarceration, police brutality, and the School-to-Prison-Pipeline (STPP)— the disturbing national trend where young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are effectively funneled from school to incarceration. I realized that “systems thinking”—a list of mathematical tools used to intervene on complex physical, economic, or social systems—could be used to help policymakers  solve these problems. So I went on to get Master’s degrees in Applied Math and in Industrial/Operations Engineering at University of Michigan before coming to Harris for my PhD.

What’s one of the most gratifying experiences you’ve had as a math tutor and instructor?

Since I started at Harris in 2016, I’ve built special connections with each cohort that comes through. Harris is really a world policy school, and you get to meet people from around the world who may become lifelong friends. Those connections are important to me. What makes Harris special is the people.

What is the research focus of your PhD, and how does this inform your approach to Math Camp?

My dissertation focuses on applying systems thinking to the School-To-Prison-Pipeline. A systems perspective reveals for instance, that you can get both vicious cycles when punishing misbehavior, and virtuous cycles when rewarding or affirming positive behavior. These dynamics have important policy implications for when and how to intervene. Another factor in the School-To-Prison-Pipeline is underachievement. We have all this evidence in psychology that student effort  depends on how they identify with the subject—for example, I try harder in math if I feel that I am a “math person.” That impacts achievement, which in turn impacts their identity.  That’s another reinforcement process. In order to sustainably improve student performance, we should take advantage of those reinforcement processes.

As math camp instructors, Rohen Shah and I take the idea of math anxiety very seriously. We have students from all over the world with different things impacting their self-concept about math. This summer, we are covering the key building blocks students need to excel in the Core. We want people to feel empowered to learn any math concept they want to learn,while “diagnosing” any issues that may prevent this (which is where Rohen’s genius comes into play). We are pitching math not as an obstacle to overcome, but a valuable set of tools—that they are in charge of—that will help them solve real policy problems.

To learn more about the research impact of our students, read this post from Leah Castleberry, MPP'20: Student Post: My Research Assistantship with Dr. Eve Ewing

Read more about Math Camp and Rohen Shah in this post: Math Camp and Self-Assessments: What You Need to Know